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Commander in Chief 

braham Lincoln was an extremely able 
commander in chief, but few Americans 
in 1861, or even in 1863, recognized 
Lincoln's genius for military strategy. 

Whereas Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, 
was a West Point graduate and Mexican War hero, Lincoln 
had virtually no previous military experience. Indeed, he 
often joked about his brief army career: four months' 
service (April- July, 1832) with several rag-tag militia com- 
panies in the Black Hawk War. Elected captain by his New 
Salem friends, Lincoln inspired more humor than gallantry 
as a leader of men. Once, when marching his company 
toward a narrow gate, he forgot the correct command to 
form his troops in a single column so they could advance. 
"Halt!" Lincoln finally shouted. "This company will break 
ranks for two minutes and form again on the other side of 
the gate." In contrast to Davis, Lincoln was a civilian by 
habit, experience, and vision. Yet this background served 
the Railsplitter well later when he led the citizen soldiers 
who fought in the Civil War. 

Lincoln succeeded as a military leader because he grasped 
the fundamentals of modern war. Unlike many journalists 
and politicians, Lincoln recognized that the Civil War 
would be a long, bloody struggle. He understood that the 
North could win the war only if it used effectively its vast 
superiority in manpower, transportation, and supply. In 
the first three years of the war, however, Lincoln failed to 
find a field commander who would exploit these advan- 
tages. Instead, the President entrusted the Union military 
fortunes to a string of ineffectual Generals— Irvin Mc- 
Dowell, George B. McClellan, Ambrose E. Burnside, John 
Pope and others. Time and time again in 1862 Lincoln 
urged McClellan to attack the Confederates. Rebuking 
the General for his continual delays, Lincoln finally wrote: 
"I have just read your despatch about sore-tongued and 
fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the 
horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam 
that fatigues anything?" The road to Union victory was 

cleared when Lincoln finally placed military command in 
the hands of Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. 
Like Lincoln, these generals realized that the Union 
could be preserved only if it fought a total war. Anything 
less would result in Confederate independence. 

Compared with the battle plans proposed by his early 
advisors, Lincoln's strategy was bold, imaginative, and 
aggressive. He ordered several simultaneous offensives— 
in different theatres— designed to crush the South. In- 
sisting that civilian authorities have a voice in the direction 
of the Northern war effort, Lincoln hounded his generals 
to maintain constant pressure on the entire periphery of 
the Confederacy until a weak spot emerged. Lincoln urged 
upon his commanders the importance of defeating the 
enemy's armies, crushing its industrial base, and destroy- 
ing its will to fight. The President was less concerned with 
occupying Southern territory than with winning the war. 

Expediency shaped Lincoln's military thought. He recog- 
nized that he had to break with the old tenets of war. 
Among the President's more radical moves was his deci- 
sion to free and arm the slaves. With this bold strike at the 
South 's "peculiar institution" Lincoln accomplished three 
goals: he provided needed manpower (178,895 black sol- 
diers) for the Union armies; he weakened the South 's labor 
force; and he inspired Afro- Americans, North and South, 
to suppress the rebellion. Other innovations reveal Lin- 
coln's understanding of the concept of total war. He au- 
thorized the devastating marches led by Sherman in 
Georgia and North Carolina, and by Philip H. Sheridan in 
Virginia. Late in the war he refused to exchange prisoners 
with the Confederacy. Each rebel soldier returned to his 
unit, reasoned Lincoln, would help prolong the war. Lin- 
coln also was the first commander in chief to declare 
medicines contraband of war. But Lincoln's most impor- 
tant legacy as a strategist was his establishment of the 
modern command system: a commander in chief (Lin- 
coln) to establish overall strategy; a general in chief 
(Grant) to implement plans; and a chief of staff (Henry W. 
Halleck) to relay information. Thus Lincoln, without rec- 
ognizing his long-range contribution to our modern com- 
mand system, laid its foundation in 1864. 

-Jt.-zc-of.o&H. lilts' 


Although Lincoln made mistakes as a war leader, he 
learned from them and never looked back. Lincoln grew 
as a strategist; he asked questions; he read; he probed— 
anything within his power to shorten the war. Ironically 
it was Lincoln, a most unlikely military man, who became 
America's apostle of modern war. 

John David Smith, Ph.D. 


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Commander in Chief